Tripoli's Christmas Spirit Undimmed After Arson: New Tree Lights Up City

The Elgin Marbles weren’t stolen — Greece is just exploiting our weakness new The British Museum is universal and must not be denigrated in the service of nationalism Jonathan Sumption Saturday December 30 2023, 6.00pm GMT, The Sunday Times The Elgin Marbles, the magnificent 5th-century BC Greek sculptures from the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum, are in the news again. George Osborne, the chairman of the museum trustees, is trying to negotiate a long-term loan of parts of them to Greece. The Greek culture minister has promised to “fill the void” at the museum with other priceless treasures if the marbles are returned. Earlier this month Lord Frost declared they should be permanently returned as a “grand gesture”. Polls show that many people agree with him. I wonder whether they would still agree if they knew what the real issues were. The official position of the Greek government is that the marbles were stolen, but that does not bear a moment’s examination. Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to Turkey at the turn of the 19th century. He took the marbles between 1802 and 1804, a time when Greece was an integral part of the multinational Turkish empire. The Acropolis rock in Athens, on which the Parthenon stands, was a Turkish garrisoned fortress. Elgin obtained a decree from the sultan authorising him to remove the sculptures. It is rather ambiguous about their export. But Elgin’s workmen erected scaffolding and took down the sculptures in full view of Turkish officials, soldiers and judges for two years without objection or interference. They were obviously satisfied that it was authorised. When the pieces were eventually shipped to England between 1810 and 1812, their export was authorised by fresh licences in unequivocal terms. The first one recited that “because stones of this kind, decorated with figures, are appreciated by the Frankish [ie, west European] states but not by Muslims, there is no harm in granting permission for their transport and passage”. They have been in the British Museum since 1816, longer than Greece has existed as a state. They are vested by statute in its trustees, who have no power to dispose of them. For most people, however, the issue is moral and cultural, not legal. So be it. What would be morally or culturally admirable about removing the Elgin Marbles from a museum in London to a museum in Athens? Cultural artefacts have always moved around the world. This has enabled their beauty and significance to be more widely appreciated. The Romans were great importers of Greek architectural sculpture: much of it is now in Italian museums. Venice was a predator in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries, and the bronze horses from the Hippodrome in Constantinople are still in St Mark’s Basilica. In the 19th century architectural sites were excavated by western archaeologists and the finds removed without opposition. Those who took the Bassae frieze from Greece, the gates of Nineveh and the Assyrian reliefs from Iraq and the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, all now in the British Museum, simply helped themselves. So did those who took the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, now in the Louvre. They took advantage of the conditions of the time: no national export controls or international rules. Attempts to reverse this process now are bound to be fundamentally destructive. The displacement of cultural objects means that associated groups are often dispersed. There are fragments of the Parthenon frieze in Paris, Vienna and Copenhagen as well as London and Athens. Finds from important Egyptian sites are scattered across the world. Panels from Duccio’s altarpiece in Siena Cathedral can be seen in Siena, London, Brussels, Madrid, Budapest, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Fort Worth, Texas. So it is rather absurd for the Greek prime minister to suggest that because 40 per cent of the Parthenon frieze is still in Athens, the retention of the other 60 per cent in London is like destroying the Mona Lisa by cutting it in half. The Parthenon frieze is regarded as an emblem of their nationhood by many Greeks, but this matter cannot be viewed through their eyes alone. The Elgin Marbles belong culturally to all humanity, not just to Greece. The British Museum is a universal museum of humanity, the oldest and greatest in the world. It is an integrated collection of the finest monuments of the human spirit to survive from the ancient world — from Greece, Egypt, Assyria, Rome, India, China and other centres. It charts the development of human civilisation through the artistic creations of different peoples in a great chronological and geographical sequence. Museums like this represent a noble vision of humanity’s connection with its past. They are great engines of public education of a kind that no local institution like the Athens museum can match. The British Museum is visited free of charge by more people from more countries than any other museum of its kind. It would be an act of gross cultural vandalism to break up its collection by removing its most important possession in the service of modern Greek nationalism. Let no one say that the return of the marbles would set no precedent. The world is watching this dispute. The great museums of Europe and America are beneficiaries of the cultural and economic dominance of the West since the 18th century. In the past few years there has been mounting political pressure on them to restore notable artefacts to their places of origin. The Greek government has also claimed the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace from France. Egypt has outstanding claims to restitution against many countries. Nigeria wants the Benin bronzes. The principle said to justify their return would dismantle most of the universal museums of the world. This is a fight that we cannot afford to lose, and certainly cannot afford to concede. That is why George Osborne has done such a disservice to the British Museum and the public by entering into negotiations for a long-term loan to Greece. To “lend” artefacts to a country that claims to own them would arguably be contrary to the trustees’ statutory duty to conserve their collections. It would certainly be unwise. The trustees’ legal title is secure only in Britain, where it is protected by statute. Under private international law, title to the marbles would depend on the law of the place where they physically stood. In Greece they could be claimed under Greek law and would probably never come back. The Greeks are pressing their claim because they sense weakness. Since it was first formally advanced in 1983, they have skilfully exploited the relentless denigration of Britain’s past. They calculate that modern Britain lacks the self-confidence to defend itself. Are they right? The present negotiations implicitly concede that they may be. New Christmas tree erected in Tripoli after arsonists burn the first

In a defiant display of the Christmas spirit, a new Christmas tree has been erected and illuminated in Tripoli, Lebanon, after the previous one was destroyed by arsonists on Christmas Eve.

"Amidst the darkness, Tripoli chooses light," announced MP Elie Khoury in a Facebook post. He worked with local community leaders, including Greek Orthodox priests, to organize the replacement tree in the courtyard of St. George's Cathedral.

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Tripoli's Christmas Spirit Undimmed After Arson: New Tree Lights Up City 1

This act of hope follows a disheartening incident early Sunday morning, where unidentified individuals burned down the original tree and attempted to set another ablaze. The city council expressed condemnation of the vandalism, calling it "out of step with the values and traditions of Tripoli."

The al-Tawarek Foundation, which champions inclusivity and social welfare in Tripoli, stepped forward to sponsor the new tree's lighting, demonstrating Tripoli's unwavering commitment to community and togetherness.

Tripoli residents expressed solidarity and defiance across social media. Many echoed former government minister Nicolas Nahas' sentiment, who called the arson a "reprehensible act" and urged authorities to investigate.

"This act will not dim the city's spirit," declared MP Khoury. "Tripoli remains a beacon of peace and harmony, where Christmas lights shine brightly on shared values of Christians and Muslims."

While undoubtedly upsetting, this incident has served to rally the community and reinforce the spirit of unity and perseverance at the heart of Tripoli's Christmas celebrations. The new tree symbolises hope, defiance, and the enduring message of peace and goodwill that Christmas embodies.

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